Timothy Snyder: Neglecting the Lithuanian Holocaust

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

Source: NY Review of Books, 7-25-11

 

The desecrated memorial stone to the Jews murdered in 1941 at the Ponary Forest, Vilnius, Lithuania, July 2011. The graffiti reads “Hitler was right.”

In early July the words “Hitler was right” were painted on the memorial stone to the 72,000 Jews who were murdered at the Ponary Forest near Vilnius in Lithuania. On another monument close by, a vulgar reference was made to the compensation the Lithuanian government has made to the descendants of murdered Jews. No one seems to have noticed.

Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, was known for centuries as the “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” because of its centrality to medieval and early modern Jewish thought and politics. In the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews settled in Vilnius in considerable numbers from both west and east. Over centuries, Jews prospered under a regime that permitted them local autonomy. During the waning of the Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, Vilnius was home to scholars such as Elijah ben Solomon, the “Gaon of Vilne,” the great opponent of the Hasidic movement.

In the nineteenth century Vilnius was home to the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, in the Russian Empire. After World War I the city was incorporated by Poland, though it was claimed by Lithuania as its capital. There were far more Poles than Lithuanians in the city, but there were about as many Jews as Poles, roughly eighty thousand each in the 1920s. In interwar Vilnius, tensions between Poles and Jews and between Poles and Lithuanians were high, but relations between Lithuanians and Jews were relatively peaceful.

In 1939, as the World War II began, the Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians of Vilnius fell under Soviet power. By the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, eastern Poland (including Vilnius) came within the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviets in 1939 gave Vilnius to Lithuania, then annexed the whole country in 1940. The NKVD, the Soviet secret police, then set about deporting Lithuania’s political and social elites—about 21,000 people in all, including many Jews. Thousands more were shot in NKVD prisons. This level of wartime terror was unprecedented, and its first perpetrators were Soviets rather then Nazis. We remember, for example, that the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara saved several thousand Jews by issuing them transit visas from Lithuania in 1940; what is often overlooked is that these Jews were fleeing not the Holocaust, which had not yet begun, but the threat of Soviet deportations.

Meanwhile, the Germans prepared to betray their Soviet allies. Part of their planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union was the recruitment of local nationalists, who would help them spread their anti-Semitic message: Nazi rule was liberation from Soviet crimes, which were in fact the fault of local Jews. During the first few weeks of the German invasion, which first touched Lithuania and other lands that the Soviets had just annexed, local peoples took part in a few hundred extremely violent pogroms, killing some 24,000 Jews…READ MORE

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